Ryan Messmore. “A Moral Case Against Big Government.” Heritage Foundation. February 27, 2007: “How Big Government Shapes Public Imagination. Today the United States government claims responsibility to provide a vast number of goods and services, which increases its potential to influence the attitudes and expectations—the public imagination—of its citizens.
The national government provides all citizens with protection of basic freedoms, national security and defense, a judicial court system, federal prisons, immigration control, stable financial markets, free trade, and a national currency.
It also aims to provide a reliable infrastructure, public schools, affordable energy, clean air and water, safe foods and medicines, innovative technologies, postal service, national parks and recreational sites, arts and humanities programs, emergency relief, space exploration, a national library, railroad corporation, archives, and botanic garden and numerous other goods.
In addition, federal social programs supply money, food stamps, housing, prescription drugs, medical care, transportation, training, counseling, rehabilitation programs, and other forms of care to the persistently poor, the provisionally poor, the elderly, the sick, the addicted, the immobile, the unemployed, the uneducated, the undereducated, the unmarried with children, children without parents, and children who are parents.
On the other side of the equation, the government expects citizens to render due allegiance in a variety of ways. At a minimum, the government asks its citizens to pledge allegiance to its flag; to value certain concepts such as individual freedom, religious liberty, popular sovereignty, and private ownership; to obey the rule of law and the rulings of the judicial process; and to be willing to fight and die for its defense. Most Americans comply with such requests for allegiance, viewing them as both prudential and patriotic measures.
In other areas, government does not ask, but requires, certain actions. Citizens must pay taxes, meet official regulations, and obey specific laws to avoid fine or imprisonment. Most citizens also acknowledge these kinds of demands as necessary for a functioning nation-state (even if they disagree with specific policies and laws).
What goes less noticed is the subtle influence that the government’s power of enforcement wields on the public imagination. The official, explicit, first-order authority to mandate payment of taxes and to enforce laws carries informal, implicit, derivative powers. These include the power to promote certain causes, prioritize certain risks, endorse certain values and beliefs, uphold certain standards, encourage certain expectations, and define and interpret certain terms. For example, the government dictates that American taxpayers must contribute to certain retirement savings mechanisms established by the government; give financial support to value-laden programs (such as diversity training in government agencies); and bankroll supposedly secular public schools whose curricula are inevitably embedded with assumptions about the true, good, and beautiful.
Moreover, the expansion of government carries over into the power to define influential legal categories and terms—such as what counts as discrimination, secular, and marriage. It also shapes social expectations and outlooks among citizens—such as where to look for assistance (the welfare state); who to blame in times of crisis (FEMA, the President, the Federal Reserve); and what people are entitled to by right (privacy, cheap prescription drugs, same-sex marriage, etc.).
The central place the government occupies among serious public discussions and debates about such issues as health care or welfare testifies to its centripetal influence over the thoughts and expectations of its citizens. Public discourse often implies that the national government is the primary—if not only—institution responsible for addressing pressing issues that face us as individuals and communities.
Rather than asking who should take responsibility for an issue (whether, family, neighborhood, government, religious congregation, etc.), the public debate too often blithely assumes that the answer is government and instead focuses on how it should address the problem. For example, when the issues of health care and welfare are raised in public discourse, they are often referenced in terms of “the health care debate” or “welfare reform” in general, with government as the implied referent. Seldom does public discourse acknowledge the possibility of other institutions taking an important role in addressing such issues: Seldom does it include talk of “this congregation’s health care debate” (i.e., the discussion going on among a group of religious co-congregants about how they will address the health care needs within and around their community) or “that neighborhood’s welfare reform” (i.e., the projects a community has undertaken to form a network of mutual support and interdependence for those in need). Government crowds out other institutions from the public imagination, and this is reflected and reinforced by prevailing public discourse.
In short, the powers to pass laws and collect taxes entail the power to define, to some extent, the terms of public understanding, involvement, and debate. In this way, government has power to help shape citizens’ thoughts, words, and deeds and influence where they place their trust, hope, and expectations.
Policymakers and government officials should neither ignore the power that comes with the exercise of political authority nor pretend that government’s task can be morally neutral. A good but limited government should acknowledge that it governs according to a certain conception of good and right but has a limited role in bringing about or realizing that conception. The government’s responsibility vis-à-vis the good and right is judgment: The government judges social relationships and activities in light of a moral vision. This differs from a more expansive understanding of government’s role—the kind that justifies the nanny state, whereby, for example, the state replaces local, non-government initiatives that actively pursue public goods with its own programs.